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Bite Size Memoir: Interviews

Bite Size Memoir for Carrot RanchOver the years I’ve been involved in interviews on both sides of the table. I’ve had terrific coaching from a wonderful HR manager, yet nothing comes to mind worthy of a story when I think of interviews I’ve conducted. There were the oddballs like the resume that escaped HR scrutiny–the first page was promising and the second page revealed the applicant’s obsession with aliens. Seriously. I did not grant an interview. Only two job interviews truly stand out. One was a boon  and the other a disaster. Both left a lasting impression, but I’m not sure how to distill either one.

Then I recalled other interviews–the ones writers conduct. The latest memory prompt from Lisa Reiter at Sharing the Story is about interviews. This is based on one I got to photograph.

Interviews

She was driving a University of Montana fleet vehicle to conduct interviews with local farmers about newly released GM alfalfa. It was a hot-button story for rural communities and food advocacy at large. I rode in the passenger-side seat, watching miles of snow covered fields stretch between jagged profusions of opposing mountain ranges. Not an easy place to farm. I was riding shotgun as the photographer. We pulled into a dinky motel in Lewistown, Montana. I once lived here, 22 years ago. Bittersweet emotions washed over me. Here my daughters toddled at Big Springs and watched Bugs Bunny the day their brother was born at home. It’s a tiny town with streets on steep hills that close in winter. It’s where I once dreamed of going to school one day, of being a writer. This day I returned with a journalism grad student. This day my daughter was the interviewer.

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Bite Size Memoir: Crazy

Bite Size Memoir for Carrot RanchSeveral years ago I was accused of writing a letter that was mass-distributed to neighbors in a rural district where my father’s parents live. It was about them being pedophiles. Which is true. But I didn’t write the letter.

I made my escape decades ago. You might think me crazy for the amount of therapy I’ve slogged through as a survivor of incest. It’s a disgusting word and I wish it wasn’t a part of my vocabulary. I’ve learned that the healthiest members of such generational sickness are the ones who seek help. Few do.

Instead it comes out in skewed ways. Most likely the letter was written in retaliation from another family member. They’re seriously enmeshed; the generations live in close proximity and they constantly bicker and war over familial power. I moved away. Twice. The first time they drug me back “home.”

The second time they knew I was dangerous—I wasn’t afraid of them anymore. I spoke out.

It took years to heal, lots of therapy, taking parenting classes, building a nucleus of trust within my own family with a supportive spouse and children who grew up without knowing my messed-up relatives. I grieved. Escape is lonely. The “family” protects the abusers.

Crazy, I know.

So, when Lisa Reiter prompted us with her clever Trekkie memoir about a time that was crazy for her, I couldn’t think of anything else but this stupid letter I didn’t write, and me and my cousin getting blamed for it. I wanted a funny story, a light story, but crazy is heavy word on my shoulders.

The good that came out of the letter incident is that it reunited me with my cousin who shared in childhood horrors. She had been blackmailed into staying silent and it broke my heart when she told me that she had to stay away from me after I got out. You leave and they shut the door on you. You have living family, but they are neither loving nor caring. You have parents that breathe but are dead to you. They protect the lies and do everything to discredit you. They tell everyone that you are the crazy one.

It’s beyond crazy and no wonder few make it out.

The letter was my cousin’s ticket to freedom. Because they thought she conspired with me, they let her go. With her own children, she escaped. Years later, she’s now happily married, ranching in eastern Montana and has support. She’s officially listed as crazy. And that’s the sanest place to be where we come from.

Crazy Cousins by Charli Mills

We’re like orphans, clinging to each other for support. My parents refuse to speak to me after we reunited, and her mother disowned her after the letter accusation. Yet they have no problem chatting with the pedophiles that walked us across brimstone as children.

My cousin and I have no family. Neither one of us will return to crazy-making. Bribes of horses no longer work on me. Blackmail no longer ties her. We have boundaries.

She sat in my kitchen a few months ago with her Montana rancher who believes she’s not crazy. We swapped stories as only cousins can do.

“He used to give me silver dollars afterwards,” I told her.

She nodded, and then a huge grin spread across her face. I got the feeling she was going to one-up me. “He used to give me two-dollar bills.”

We laughed uproariously. We survived. And we share this craziness.

Bite Size Memoir: Discovery

Bite Size Memoir for Carrot RanchSagebrush hid toppled tombstones scattered between pines in the Markleeville Cemetery. It had no road, no worn path of mourners. I discovered it by accident when I was seven, searching a hillside for glittering rocks with crystals. I followed a cow trail up the hillside, thrusting pretties into my jeans pockets.

At the top of the hill I could see the entire town. A cluster of houses, a store and a bar, almost a ghost town kept alive by an active courthouse and tourists who skied and camped.

A barbed wire fence marked its edge. I could see marble blocks so I crawled beneath wires. Old grave markers. Many were children and I wondered why they died. Inscriptions were from the mining heyday: 1860s-1880s. By the time I left Markleeville at age 18, I knew every stone, inscription and unmarked hallow. I discovered how to read history among the dead.

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Linking up with Lisa Reiter at Sharing the Story for Bite Size Memoir.

Bite Size Memoir “Holiday Reads”

Bite Size Memoir for Carrot RanchHoliday consists of me cooking. What kind of holidays do I take? Camping trips mostly. I’ve traveled a fair amount for speaking engagements and always seemed to buy books while traveling to new places. And books are always stuffed into my travel bags, even my day bag for fishing.

These days it’s the Kindle that goes everywhere with me, even to the grocery store. Tomorrow morning the Hub will take me out to Stacy’s for breakfast because we do that every time he comes home from working out of town. He’ll pick up the nickle ads and I’ll pull out the Kindle.

To some people this might appear rude or send the wrong message that we aren’t able to tolerate each others’ company. But it’s the opposite. We’re comfortable enough to read together. And that was one of the first things that drew me to the Hub when we met.

This week, Lisa Reiter of Sharing the Story has challenged bite-size memorists to share their holiday reads. What keeps coming to mind is that first dinner the Hub ever cooked for me. It’s not a holiday so I’m stretching the prompt.

Books After Dinner by Charli Mills–USA

We were set up by well-intentioned friends.

We liked each other enough to go duck hunting the next day, and two days later he invited me to his small house for duck dinner. He’d been working so let me in and said he needed to shower. I could smell roasting duck as I settled into the only chair in his living-room/kitchen. I always had a book with me and I sat down to read, “Daughters of Cameron,” an historical romance novel.

His bedroom door didn’t sit right in the frame so I remember looking up to catch a glimpse of his nude body as he passed by after his shower. Back then, he was a rugby-god-army-ranger-farm-boy. I almost bolted from the house; romance better left to books. I stayed. We ate dinner, he noticed my book, grabbed his hardcover classic and for the rest of the evening we read together.

The Hub & Charli 1987

The Hub & Charli 1987

Bite Size Memoir No. 10

Bite Size Memoir for Carrot RanchWriting a memoir is like eating an elephant as our host, Lisa Reiter, reminds us–one bite at a time. Thus far, she’s led memoirists new and seasoned through ten bites. I’m hoping the elephant is grand and that the meal is greatly extended. I’m enjoying the company around the dinner table as we swap memories.

The swap is enlightening. Sharing memories in bites with others leads to revelations and reminders. My memory reminds another and another’s memory jiggles a forgotten item from the past. It’s kind of like digging into old couch cushions and finding loose change.

This week, we our theme is “10 out of 10.” We are prompted to write about something we excel at be it a hobby, academia or even a certain strand of trivia.

I’m very good at setting that dinner table for Thanksgiving feast. When I wrote food columns, I would get excited for the grandest American food holiday and try to outdo the year before. All my food pairing and menu planning benefited my family who got to eat the results. One year, my eldest read an article that I wrote for the local newspaper and she went online to comment….”That’s my mum and that’s what we’re eating for Thanksgiving!” It made me feel like the best turkey-stuffer in the world.

So let me tantalize you with my best 10.

Memories of the Drunken Turkey

When they were little enough to all kneel on the kitchen counter, the Thanksgiving turkey got a full-body massage. Three little hands rubbed room-temp butter onto the round, raw 20-pound tom. As the kids got older and our food interests matured, we introduced vices to the turkey–smoking, bourbon and Clean Slate Riesling. From this transition, the Mills Family Drunken Turkey rose to the ranks of near-legend. At least for three Mills offspring.

Three days before launching the inebriated turkey into the oven, I create a brine of alcohol, spices, water and Celtic Sea Salt. Sometimes he gets to smoke prior to sloshing in bourbon or wine. He’s the star of the dinner table but accompanied by the likes of: Exotic Vanilla-Bean Cranberries, Wild Rice with Butternut Squash, Jalapeno Cornbread, Camembert Mashed Yukons, Maple Orange Sweet Potatoes, Savory Mushroom Bread Pudding, Creamed Peas and Bourbon Pumpkin Pies.

My perfect 10.

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Note about photo: this was my Papa Sonny’s turkey ranch in central California, east of San Francisco.  Not all ranches wrangle cattle. And yes, the turkeys were free-range.

Turkeys on the Range

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bite Size Memoir No. 9

Bite Size Memoir for Carrot RanchThe purpose of writing memoir in constraints (150 words or 10 “I Remember” statements) is so that anyone can commit  to documenting personal history one manageable bite at a time. Each week, Lisa Reiter, host and memoirist at “Sharing the Story” offers a prompt to facilitate each bite.

This week’s prompt is cycling. Ugh, bikes. Over the years I’ve seen a surge of enthusiasm for cycling and I’ve never understood it. Until today. Because I’ve been horse-smitten most of my life, I never got bit by the cycling bug. Yet, I see how both are similar. Both activities are outside in the fresh air, can be solitary or in a group, and as challenging as we wish to make it. These are experiences we can’t get from a car, public or mass transportation.

Cycling and riding horses is not about getting to a destination. It’s all about the ride. But I will always prefer riding horses over bikes.

Cycling: Not as Romantic as Riding Horses

By Charli Mills, USA

Riding my canary-yellow bike, I pretended it was a horse. It didn’t trot or gallop. I had to pedal furiously to get up the steep grades that led out of the small mountain town where I lived. Today, top-notch cyclists pedal these same roads and call it the “Death Ride.”

I wrecked a couple of times coasting down those grades, sliding tires in gravel accumulated alongside the shoulders. Tiny rocks embedded in my knees, causing me to dread road-rash. But there were no bike paths or trail bikes back then.

Whenever I got bucked off a horse, I thumped grassy ground, never pavement or gravel. Once, my horse dumped me in a creek. It was thrilling to cling to the saddle and if others were around, it roused much whooping and hollering.

Steep roads, bike crashes and pedaling endlessly curbed any childhood attachments to cycling. Horses still make me swoon.

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What do you remember about cycling? Join in the Bite Size Memoir Cycling challenge with your own recollection.

Bite Size Memoir No. 6

Peeing Like a CowgirlWhat surprises me weekly in pursuing Bite Size Memoir, is that the memories of others opens a pathway for my own. The prompt has me going, then I read Lisa Reiter’s responses and several new memories intrude. I see her picture and a different set of memories flicker to mind. When I read other responses, still more memories churn to be noticed.

Where do I keep all of these? Suddenly I renew respect for my mind that files all these clips as if it were my internal “cloud.”

To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled to try memoir, even in bites. Lots of memories taste bitter and others I doubt. But you know what? They are mine, and I’ve found a safe release valve of sorts where I can let them steam to mind and it’s my choice what I share.

This week, Lisa prompts us to remember “First Jobs.” Her prose touches upon what it’s like to be a woman at a man’s job. She even relives the triumph of surviving the first day among men who tell the women to “pee in the trenches.”

That certainly brought to mind a similar situation that I faced at age 19. Working road construction was its own special hell, but the money was triple anything else available. But before that job, the first one I held outside of the forced labor for my parents, I had already learned to go when you had to go.

Peeing Like a Cowgirl

From the time I was 12 until 18 the local ranch paid me to push cattle to summer pastures. That first fall round-up when I rode with the other ranch hands, peeing posed a problem.

I could pee outside, just not in front of a bunch of lanky men in Wranglers and boots. Whispering my dilemma to the foreman, he shouted at the cowpokes, “Don’t watch!”

Thus I did. And no one watched. Cowboy code of dignity. But such codes didn’t exist off range. At 19 my first labor union job was flagging for road construction crews; mostly men. “Flaggers” were the token females.

When it came time for our union pee-break, our boss laughed and pointed at the sagebrush. The other men, knowing we wouldn’t dare, jeered at us, crossing their legs in fun of our discomfort. So I walked out to the sagebrush and peed like a cowgirl.

Dump Cake

Recipes From the RanchAs unappetizing as it sounds, Dump Cake, is mainstay Dutch oven cooking.

Last week, Lisa Reiter of Sharing the Story, stirred up our memories of camping which led me to think of the camping cake that requires no stirring. That’s what a Dump Cake is–dump in the ingredients; no stirring required.

In 2007 my family camped in the northern forests of Wisconsin at Birch Lake. My kids were still kids then, as my eldest, Allison, was perched to fly the family coop. Kyle, the youngest was turning 16 and Brianna was going into her senior year of high school. It was trip that stirred my memory of fun family times in my Bite Size Memoir No. 5.

Birch Lake (2)

Because we were camping, the Dutch oven was working overtime. My husband grumbles that I bring the kitchen sink and I respond, “No, I bring the whole kitchen.” The kids tell him to hush and eat. They don’t mind packing the extra iron, utensils and food because we all like to eat like kings around the campfire.

A Dutch oven is a large cast iron pot with a flat lid. You can hang it over an open flame, set it on a grill or even snug it into coals. The latter is required for baking.

Ten years prior to this camping trip, in 1997, I was the writing intern for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. It was one of my first freelance gigs and I was covering an event called “Becoming an Outdoors Woman.” Being a buckaroo, I grew up outdoors and was no stranger to  logging camp meals and cowboy coffee.

Yet, I was not familiar with the Dutch oven. We had cast iron pans, enamel coffee pots and grills, but I learned how to use the oven on this assignment. Mountain-man, Darrel D. Johnson, was our teacher. He wore a fox-skin hat, leather leggings and was the keeper of  “extremely useful information.”

Today, I share with you Mountain-man Johnson’s recipe for Dump Cake.

Birch Lake (3)

It’s all in getting the coals white. Notice that we had half our fire pit dedicated to coals, the other half to wood. We aren’t fancy when camping, so just set that Dutch oven in the dirt and lightly butter the bottom. Add one can of cherry pie filling. Next, spread one box of yellow cake mix over the fruit. Melt one stick of butter and pour it over the mix. Don’t stir. Just “dump” the ingredients in the order given.

Birch Lake (4)

Nestle the Dutch oven into your pile of white-hot coals. Add a few coals to the lid, scattering evenly as you can see in the photo above. Bake about 10 minutes before you lift the lid to check progress.

Birch Lake (5)

Your Dump Cake is ready when the fruit bubbles up around the edges. When it is, remove it from the coals, but set the lid (with coals) back in place until the top is browned.

Birch Lake

Decorate if you’d like, as we did. Slice and serve like brownies.

The fun of a Dump Cake is that it’s versatile. You can use any can of pie filling or even canned crushed pineapple. You can add 1/2 to one cup of walnuts, almonds or pecans. You can use any boxed cake mix–white, yellow, spice, cherry, chocolate. Just remember to dump in order:

  • canned fruit
  • boxed cake
  • stick of melted butter

And there you have it–Dump Cake! And now a parting shot of Birch Lake:

DSC_0572

And that’s Bobo swimming for the canoe, not Nessie. But if you like magical creatures, join us for the June 4 Flash Fiction Challenge: June 4, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a fantastical element or creature. Respond by noon (PST) Tuesday, June 10 to be included in the compilation.

 

 

 

Bite Size Memoir No. 5

CampingCamping at Birch Lake

The year K. turned 16 we pitched our rain impervious tents among white pines in Wisconsin. We had Birch Lake to ourselves so we set the dogs loose until they ran so hard that one began to pant like a wheezy old tractor.

Over an open flame, we grilled steaks marinated in Tabasco and tequila, and baked a cherry dump cake for K. in the Dutch oven. Camping is remembered for the food, and that year was the best menu if you ask the kids. It was the best fishing if you ask T.

Smelling of campfire, we drove from Birch Lake to Northland College where we dropped off A. for her first year. If you ask me, it was the best camping trip because it was the last year we camped with all three kids while they were yet kids.

I can still see them posing on the felled tree like it was yesterday.

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Join memoirist, Lisa Reiter, as she encourages other writers take a bite out of camping memories this week. #Bitesizememoir at Sharing the Story.

A., B. and K. on Camping Trip to Birch Lake, 2007

A, B & K

School at Seven

School at SevenBlogger Lisa Reiter has launched “Bite Size Memoirs.” She writes two poignant examples of the accepted styles for the prompt which is brief.

While I’m not a memoirist, I do draw heavily upon experience to create story ideas. Memories often lead me to reflect.

For instance, my novel “Miracle of Ducks,” is based on my experiences of sharing a life with a former Army Ranger and his obsession with German Short-haired Pointers. Fictionalizing those experiences allows me to explore the realm of “what if…”

Right away I was drawn to Lisa’s challenge. I believe in the power of prompts to spark creativity; the magic of constraints to improve writing; and the joy of practicing craft with other writers. It’s like musicians who gather and just jam.

After reflecting on Lisa’s first prompt, I realized what a tumultuous time age seven was for me. I hardly remember school that year, but I have one vivid memory related to seven and school. What follows is what I mined from that memory for “Bite Size Memoir No. 1.”

School at Seven by Charli Mills

Morning, and it’s the last day of school at Sunnyslope. Not for the year. Just for me. My parents bought a store and a pink house near Lake Tahoe.

Mrs. Vineyard says I can build snowmen at recess where I’m going. It doesn’t snow in Hollister where apricots grow, planted by great-grandpa Bumpa who lives at the place smelling like hospitals.

I like Bumpa and bingo and horses. Not doctors.

Papa, drives slowly down the steep hill overlooking turkey barns and old scrap. We don’t talk about the other grandfather or why my parents are moving. It feels like it’s my fault, and misery squats on my shoulders the way blackbirds roost in eucalyptus trees. Papa stops the car. He leans over and offers me a choice of three candies. Big bars of chocolate. I choose the Baby Ruth.

Seven was not a sweet year, but I remember that clemency.

(Look for new prompts on Fridays  at Sharing the Story, and follow along on Twitter at #BiteSizeMemoir.)